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Will Indian footballers ever be awarded Khel Ratna?

Will Indian footballers ever be awarded Khel Ratna?

The Bridge Desk

Published: 21 Aug 2020 12:22 PM GMT

The Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award is the highest sporting honour of India. It is awarded annually by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. The recipient(s) is/are selected by a committee constituted by the Ministry and is honoured for their "spectacular and most outstanding performance in the field of sports over a period of four years" at international level. Beginning in 1991, the Khel Ratna award is a civilian award that ensures a medallion, a certificate and a monetary prize of Rs. 7.5 lakhs for a sportsperson’s contributions. So far, there have been 38 Khel Ratna awardees from 14 sport disciplines: Athletics, Badminton, Billiards, Boxing, Chess, Cricket, Field hockey, Gymnastics, Shooting, Snooker, Tennis, Wrestling, Weightlifting, and Yacht racing.

Going by the history of the award in the past 30 years, there have been five individuals from team sports to have won this award. Sachin Tendulkar, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli from cricket, whereas Dhanraj Pillay and Sardar Singh from Hockey. However, despite being a popular sport in the country and with a pretty illustrious history with the game, Indian football fraternity hasn't been able to bring a Khel Ratna award home. The fraternity which saw some brilliant players like I M Vijayan, Bhaichung Bhutia, and now Sunil Chhetri in the last 30 years, has not been given the due of the country's highest sporting award.

To be eligible for Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the spectacular and most outstanding performance in the field of sports by a sportsperson over a period of four years immediately preceding the year during which award is to be given will be considered for Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award for excellence in Sports & Games at International level i.e. Olympic/Paralympics/Asian/ Commonwealth Games! Championships/World Cup/World Championship and equivalent recognised international tournaments.

Agreeing to the fact the Indian football team hasn't got close even winning the Asian Cup in the last few decades, doesn't mean India didn't produce a good footballer in recently. Like Sardar Singh or Dilp Tirkey in hockey Indian football team has time and again been blessed by players like Vijayan, Bhaichung or Chettri.

Vijayan has been the captain of the Indian football team. Playing in the striker position, he formed a successful attacking partnership with Bhaichung Bhutia for the Indian national team in the late nineties and early 2000s. Vijayan was crowned Indian Player of the Year in 1993, 1997 and 1999, the first player to win the award multiple times. A highly aggressive player, he eventually became the highest earner in Indian club football as well as a regular in the India team. He scored one of the fastest ever international goals in a match against Bhutan in the 1999 SAF Games, when he managed to do the same in 12 seconds. Vijayan's talents attracted interest from clubs in Malaysia and Thailand, although he spent his entire career in India until retirement. By the end of his career he had scored 40 international goals in 79 matches for India. Since retiring from international football Vijayan has set up a football academy to train young players in his home town. He was a was part of the victorious Indian team in the 1999 South Asian Football Federation Cup and scored one of the fastest international goals in history during the tournament, hitting the net against Bhutan after only 12 seconds. He also finished top scorer in the Afro-Asian Games event held in India in 2003 with four goals. Vijayan formally retired from international football after the Afro-Asian Games of 2003. He was known as the Kalo Harin or Black Buck. But IM Vijayan is a name that has pretty much been forgotten in the history of Indian football. But make no mistake, in his prime he was no less than an icon.

Similarly, like Vijayan, the present Indian team captain Sunil Chhetri also deserves a Khel Ratna on his own merit. Many would say it’s in the genes as Sunil Chhetri was born to footballer parents on August 3, 1984, in Secunderabad. Chhetri has been adjudged AIFF Player of the year for a record six times, FPAI Indian Player of The Year twice.

In 2011, he was even honoured with the Arjuna Award and in 2019, Padma Sri – the fourth-highest civilian award in India. With 75 goals in 115 international appearances, he is the highest ever goal-scorer in Indian football history. Overall, it’s the joint-10th most in international football history and second-most after Cristiano Ronaldo (99) among active footballers. With all these records and claims to his name, Chhetri paved a way for many youngsters who want to take up the sport as a future option.

Indian football still has a long way to go to strike success back again in the international level in stages like Asian Games or Commonwealth, however, nobody can rob the talent and contribution of players like Chhetri or Vijayan in the team, therefore they also deserve a Khel Ratna to their names.

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